Non-league to Premier League: how on earth does it happen? FourFourTwo hears from those who've done it

Michail Antonio, West Ham

In an era of mega-bucks TV deals and huge international scouting networks, many players still rise from semi-pro football to the domestic game’s summit. FFT investigates how it remains a path well trodden

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Troy Deeney was drunk. And yet, this would be the day. He didn’t know it at the time, and he certainly wasn’t prepared for it, but this would be the day his rise to the Premier League began.

Deeney was playing for Chelmsley Town, his local non-league side in the West Midlands. It was just another match – until the weather intervened. The game that Walsall scout Mick Halsall was planning to go and watch that day was postponed, so instead he went to see his son’s team take on Chelmsley.

Troy Deeney

Deeney spent four years with Walsall before joining Watford in 2010

Despite taking to the field in a state of inebriation, Deeney scored seven goals that afternoon in an 11-4 victory. Halsall immediately offered the 17-year-old a trial – a trial that he still had to be dragged out of bed to attend – and the rest is history. A decade later, the striker is the captain of Premier League club Watford, and so valuable to the Hornets that they reportedly rejected a £25 million bid for his services from reigning champions Leicester last summer.

In a time when the financial gulf between the Premier League and the rest is ever-widening, making it from non-league to the top flight seems improbable. It goes against everything the academy system has been set up to achieve. Yet it still happens, and with surprising regularity.

Bouncing back

Phillips had been told by Southampton that he was too small to be a striker, and he began his non-league career as a right-back

When Sam Allardyce named his first England squad at the end of August, four of the players he selected had risen from non-league. Jamie Vardy, Chris Smalling and Joe Hart, who made his senior debut in the Conference with Shrewsbury Town, were joined in the group by West Ham’s Michail Antonio, formerly of Tooting & Mitcham United.

“I know loads of people who don’t appreciate being a footballer,” Antonio tells FFT. “I appreciate every single moment of it. I didn’t go through an academy, but I had the self-belief that I should be a pro footballer. Now I’m here, no one’s telling me I’m not good enough.”

Antonio had been part of Fulham’s Football in the Community scheme as a youngster, but was never signed up. Almost all of those players who’ve gone from non-league to the top have a rejection story. Often, you sense that it's as important as the journey itself.

“I was an apprentice at Southampton but I was released,” Kevin Phillips explains to FFT. “It was a big heartbreak. I wrote to virtually every club in the country, asking for a trial. I only got three responses, all of them negative. You almost feel then that your chance has gone.

“I had to go out into the big wide world, into non-league, but I kept plugging away. I tried to be as disciplined as I possibly could, staying in on a Friday night when my mates were going out. It’s difficult when they’re knocking on your door, saying: ‘You’ve had your chance in football – come on, let’s go out’. But although I only had a non-league game the next day, I still believed that someone would be there watching and would give me an opportunity.”

Kevin Phillips

Phillips admits he owes much of his success to his non-league grounding

Phillips had been told by Southampton that he was too small to be a striker, and he began his non-league career as a right-back. Moving into adult football with Baldock Town was a challenge, but it was the making of him.

Toughen up

I remember one game, when I was 16: I was the quickest on the pitch, I was running down the left and there were three tackles where I had to do hurdles

- Michail Antonio

Others have learned from the more physical nature of the semi-pro game as well, even if they didn’t always appreciate it at the time. Everton winger Yannick Bolasie tells a story of a Rushden & Diamonds game at Altrincham in which he tore the opposition to shreds but had to be substituted at half-time for his own safety, as Altrincham had become so irritated that they resorted to kicking lumps out of him. It’s a tale that sounds familiar to Antonio.

“I played against men from an earlier age than academy players do,” says the West Ham man. “I remember one game, when I was 16: I was the quickest on the pitch, I was running down the left and there were three tackles where I had to do hurdles. They didn’t go for the ball – they went for my ankles. I managed to cross the ball, we scored, and after that someone stood on my toe. They aren’t nice in non-league, but it makes you stronger.”

Yannick Bolasie

Bolasie signed for Barnet on loan in 2009 after a spell at Rushden & Diamonds

For Smalling, a sudden increase in strength surprised everybody at Maidstone United, where he progressed from the youth team to the first XI after leaving Millwall’s academy.

“My first memory of him was in a Kent Cup game,” recalls Smalling’s former Maidstone boss, Lloyd Hume. “He was a tall and gangly player who clearly had talent, but there were a couple of other players in that youth team who looked stronger and perhaps more ready. When he came back for pre-season, though, he’d gone in one summer from being a spindly boy to being a man. We did a bleep test and it got to the stage where we had to stop it because he was on his own for some time.”

Smalling was still at school during his Maidstone days. Fellow non-league graduate Duncan Watmore combined his own duties at Altrincham with life as a student, continuing his course even after joining Sunderland and gaining a first-class honours degree in economics and business management.

Chris Smalling

Smalling's rise was rapid: the defender joined Fulham directly from Maidstone United

Hard graft

I was working 12-hour shifts in a warehouse. It was tough, but it was what you had to do

- Kevin Phillips

Others had to find jobs. Charlie Austin was a bricklayer, George Boyd worked in a sweet shop, Ashley Williams helped on the hoopla stall at Drayton Manor Theme Park and Craig Dawson collected glasses down at the Dog & Partridge pub, where he was persuaded to join Radcliffe Borough by the club’s chairman, son of comedian Bernard Manning. Kevin Phillips remembers those days well.

“I was working 12-hour shifts in a warehouse,” he tells FFT. “It was tough, but it was what you had to do. I remember my first day as a signed professional for Watford: we didn’t have to start until 10.30am, which I couldn’t believe, because normally I’d already done about three or four hours’ work by then. Then when we finished at 12 or 12.30, the lads started walking off the training ground and I said to them, ‘Is that it? Are we finished?’ They said, ‘Yes, you’re free to go home now’.

"I couldn’t believe it – I was used to having another eight or nine hours’ work left! It was surreal, but it was also a fantastic feeling. My theory now is this: when players come into an academy, why not send them off to a warehouse and let them work a 12-hour shift – like kids who do work experience at school – just so they can see how lucky they are if they become a professional?”

Charlie Austin

Former Swindon (didn't they have great sponsors back then?) striker Austin was acquired from non-league Poole Town

Phillips, now assistant coach at Derby, turned professional at 21. Examples in the mould of Tony Book, who left non-league aged 30 and captained Manchester City to the First Division title four years later, are much rarer. Book’s age was such a concern that Malcolm Allison, who brought him into the Football League at Plymouth before enticing him to Maine Road, told the defender to doctor his birth certificate to convince the Pilgrims’ chairman he was 28.